Daniel Schecter's “Safe Spaces” depicts a wacky but ultimately loving Jewish family.
Daniel Schecter's “Safe Spaces” depicts a wacky but ultimately loving Jewish family.

In ‘Safe Spaces,’ campus politics and family dynamics are more complicated than they appear

Fans of the Amazon Prime show “Transparent” might recognize the Cohens — a pot-smoking, starkly honest, often argumentative, wacky and ultimately loving contemporary American Jewish family at the center of “Safe Spaces.”

Starring Justin Long (“New Girl”) and Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”), the comedy is ostensibly about the political climate on college campuses today, a topic that writer and director Daniel Schechter says is based loosely on his experiences as a teacher. But its most poignant moments deal not with campus politics but with the Cohens, who, after years of rocky family dynamics, are reuniting to deal with a very sick grandmother (an implied Kindertransport refugee).

The film’s inciting incident is when college creative writing teacher Josh Cohen, played by Long, encourages a student to share a sexual experience in class, for the sake of her writing.

“Embarrass yourself, Sarah,” he says. “Write what hurts.”

Sarah does, and the class loves it. But it turns out Sarah’s writing hurt a bit more than expected. Later, Josh is told another student was quietly “triggered” by the incident, and that he might be suspended.

“Some of these students can be very sensitive,” an administrator says, perhaps summarizing the film’s thesis.

The movie raises questions about art, honesty and “kids these days” — in one scene, Josh’s younger brother plays video games while Josh holds a basketball encouraging him to go outside for once. But Cohen’s original sin seems so mild, from the viewer’s perspective, that it’s hard to sympathize much with the students, who instead seem, well, annoying.

Still, the movie delivers some strikingly real moments, particularly for viewers with experience in close-knit (and eccentric) Jewish families. Like cousins lying around a New York City apartment, after visiting their grandmother in the hospital, sharing a macabre wish to (painlessly, of course) murder their stepmom.

“This is really nice,” the sister, Jackie, says, afterward, of simply being together.

Or when the estranged dad, Jeff, finally mans up and goes to visit grandma, who was “like a mom to him.” Played by Richard Schiff (Toby on “The West Wing”), Jeff charms grandma on her hospital bed, holds her hand, and suggests they “blow this joint” with a bottle of liquor in a paper bag and a transistor radio.

There’s also a beautiful scene toward the end, when a young granddaughter recites Agatha’s biography, including her flight from Eastern Europe.

Ultimately the film doesn’t rely on easy resolutions, conceding that campus politics might be more complicated than we thought.

“I actually do understand better why you feel the way you do, and I had never thought about it like that,” Josh tells the offended student, who stares back at him with a streak of blue hair. “I will learn from it and try to be better.”

Whether Jennifer cares is another question.

“Safe Spaces” is part of the SFJFF’s “Next Wave Spotlight,” which includes 12 films that explore modern life and identity through a Jewish lens. For $45, people under 35 can buy a Next Wave pass that allows admittance to all regular festival screenings and “Big Night” films; in addition, the pass will get the holder into a reception with free snacks and vodka cocktails at the Castro Theatre following the July 20 screening of “Safe Spaces.”

“Safe Spaces”

8:50 p.m. July 20 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; 6:10 p.m. July 21 at CinéArts, Palo Alto; 8:30 p.m. July 31 at Albany Twin; 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. Director to appear at S.F. and Palo Alto screenings. No rating, 93 minutes. sfjff.org

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.